Tag Archives: teaching

Are you Preparing your Students for Life or the Test?

Are you preparing your students for life or the test? This notion is something that I thought I was addressing in an innovative way when I was in the classroom. I told my students that yes, I was preparing them for that grade level and the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test, but more importantly I am preparing them for life. There are times that I would introduce a concept and say this information or process is not just for the TAKS test but for life. Life meaning however the students choose to live their adult life. In whatever capacity, job, financial status or family situation. I would often say there is more to life than testing and more to school work than test preparation.

As in many states, high stakes testing is the focus of curriculum in Texas. Professional development sessions are always centered around ways to improve test scores and add value to the student’s academic achievement. From day one to the last day, we are talking about preparation for TAKS for the current year or follow year. And previous year if incoming student achievement is significantly impacted from former teachers’ classrooms. When my oldest niece was in third grade, she said she was sick of hearing about TAKS. Unfortunately for her, that was just the beginning of hearing about TAKS. Fortunately she gets commended ratings and achieves a nearly perfect score on the TAKS test (we are so proud of her!) but it is sad that this is the ‘condition’ education is currently in.

In one of the emails I receive for various Diigo groups, a link to the following blog post was shared by Kevin Prentiss, “Valedictorian Speaks Out Against Schooling in Graduation Speech“. I apologize but I do not recall who shared the link. After first read, I stopped and thought about the sentiments of the student’s valedictorian speech. I read it a second time very carefully and was so impressed with what the student said. The student, Erica Goldson graduated as valedictorian of Coxsackie-Athens High School, and gave the following speech to her fellow students. Thank you Erica for posting your speech on Sign of the Times:

Here I stand

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, “If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years . .” The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then?” Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.” “But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?” asked the student. “Thirty years,” replied the Master. “But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?” Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

This is the dilemma I’ve faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, “We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don’t do that.” Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.

H. L. Mencken wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not “to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. … Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim … is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States.”

To illustrate this idea, doesn’t it perturb you to learn about the idea of “critical thinking.” Is there really such a thing as “uncritically thinking?” To think is to process information in order to form an opinion. But if we are not critical when processing this information, are we really thinking? Or are we mindlessly accepting other opinions as truth?

This was happening to me, and if it wasn’t for the rare occurrence of an avant-garde tenth grade English teacher, Donna Bryan, who allowed me to open my mind and ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine, I would have been doomed. I am now enlightened, but my mind still feels disabled. I must retrain myself and constantly remember how insane this ostensibly sane place really is.

And now here I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us, a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change. We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choices in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us.

We are more than robotic bookshelves, conditioned to blurt out facts we were taught in school. We are all very special, every human on this planet is so special, so aren’t we all deserving of something better, of using our minds for innovation, rather than memorization, for creativity, rather than futile activity, for rumination rather than stagnation? We are not here to get a degree, to then get a job, so we can consume industry-approved placation after placation. There is more, and more still.

Welcome to the Machine

Image by courosa

The saddest part is that the majority of students don’t have the opportunity to reflect as I did. The majority of students are put through the same brainwashing techniques in order to create a complacent labor force working in the interests of large corporations and secretive government, and worst of all, they are completely unaware of it. I will never be able to turn back these 18 years. I can’t run away to another country with an education system meant to enlighten rather than condition. This part of my life is over, and I want to make sure that no other child will have his or her potential suppressed by powers meant to exploit and control. We are human beings. We are thinkers, dreamers, explorers, artists, writers, engineers. We are anything we want to be – but only if we have an educational system that supports us rather than holds us down. A tree can grow, but only if its roots are given a healthy foundation.

For those of you out there that must continue to sit in desks and yield to the authoritarian ideologies of instructors, do not be disheartened. You still have the opportunity to stand up, ask questions, be critical, and create your own perspective. Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. Demand that you be interested in class. Demand that the excuse, “You have to learn this for the test” is not good enough for you. Education is an excellent tool, if used properly, but focus more on learning rather than getting good grades.

For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.

For those of you that are now leaving this establishment, I say, do not forget what went on in these classrooms. Do not abandon those that come after you. We are the new future and we are not going to let tradition stand. We will break down the walls of corruption to let a garden of knowledge grow throughout America. Once educated properly, we will have the power to do anything, and best of all, we will only use that power for good, for we will be cultivated and wise. We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.

So, here I stand. I am not standing here as valedictorian by myself. I was molded by my environment, by all of my peers who are sitting here watching me. I couldn’t have accomplished this without all of you. It was all of you who truly made me the person I am today. It was all of you who were my competition, yet my backbone. In that way, we are all valedictorians.

I am now supposed to say farewell to this institution, those who maintain it, and those who stand with me and behind me, but I hope this farewell is more of a “see you later” when we are all working together to rear a pedagogic movement. But first, let’s go get those pieces of paper that tell us that we’re smart enough to do so!

After reading this student’s speech, I hope that I not only prepare my students for success on state standardized tests and curriculum but also prepare them ultimately for life in a huge, bold way. I hope I convey the importance of developing outside (of school)  interests and take time to explore those interests turning them into lifelong passions. I hope that I instill a love for learning and seeking knowledge and never stifle creativity, fun, or the desire to take on new challenges in life. I totally see my niece falling into this rut. She is well behaved at school and does well on classwork and TAKS. She is a teacher’s dream but is learning her dream?

*Note: Images from PhotoXpress.com and courosa/Flickr.

Teaching Hope in your Classroom

teaching hopeTeaching Hope by Erin Gruwell was recently released on August 18 and I wanted to share with you a short video created to promote this fantastic teaching resource.

The following synopsis describes the book according to the Freedom Writers Foundation website:

About the book:

“There are lives lost in this book, and there are lives saved, too, if salvation means a young man or woman begins to feel deserving of a place on the planet. . . . What could be more soul-satisfying? These are the most influential professionals most of us will ever meet. The effects of their work will last forever.”  –from the foreword by Anna Quindlen

Now depicted in a bestselling book and a feature film, the Freedom Writers phenomenon came about in 1994, when Erin Gruwell stepped into Room 203 and began her first teaching job out of college. Long Beach, California, was still reeling from the deadly violence that erupted during the Rodney King riots, and the kids in Erin’s classroom reflected the anger, resentment, and hopelessness of their community. Undaunted, Erin fostered an educational philosophy that valued and promoted diversity, tolerance, and communication, and in the process, she transformed her students’ lives, as well as her own.

Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers went on to establish the Freedom Writers Foundation to replicate the success of Room 203 and provide all students with hope and opportunities to realize their academic potential. Since then, the foundation has trained more than 150 teachers in the United States and Canada. Teaching Hope unites the voices of these Freedom Writer teachers, who share uplifting, devastating, and poignant stories from their classrooms, stories that provide insight into the struggles and triumphs of education in all of its forms.

Mirroring an academic year, these dispatches from the front lines of education take us from the anticipation of the first day to the disillusionment, challenges, and triumphs of the school year. These are the voices of teachers who persevere in the face of intolerance, rigid administration, and countless other challenges, and continue to reach out and teach those who are deemed unteachable. Their stories inspire everyone to make a difference in the world around them.

I am so excited this book has been released and know it will be a success! Below is the link to a video produced by Erin Gruwell promoting Teaching Hope. At the time of writing, the book is on sale from it’s regular price of $14.99 at Amazon* although you can purchase the book at most bookstores on and offline. Get your copy and further the efforts of Erin Gruwell, her students and the participating teachers are you teach hope in your classroom!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

*Disclosure: Link takes you to Amazon Affiliate Page

Teacher Uses Webcam to Deliver Lessons

While reading one of my email feeds, I came across a story that I found fascinating about a teacher who is out on medical leave and is using a webcam to conference online with his students. Frank Wilson, government teacher at Bishop Watterson High School in Columbus, Ohio, recently had knee surgery and didn’t want his students to fall behind while recovering. Wilson is a veteran educator of 47 years and teaches his Advanced Placement (AP) government students from the basement of his home.

According to the article in the Columbus, Ohio newspaper titled “Government teacher conducts class from home basement“,

With the support of Watterson administrators, class was in session live from Wilson’s basement.

The Web cam allowed Wilson to see, teach, and carry on discussion with his students from his basement, Winters said. They could see him on the projector screen, and he could see them on his computer.

“My students all have Tablet PCs, and our government classes are almost paperless,” Wilson said.

“We use the computers for everything, including testing online.”

“To be honest, this program has allowed me to continue to teach,” he said, adding the classes went well with minimal disruption.

“I could not have done this without the support of our technology department and individual staff members who were willing to sit in the classroom and take attendance for me.”

For liability purposes Wilson had an adult in the classroom at all times but I can certainly relate to being concerned that your students will not progress or lose direction whenever you out. Twenty years ago when I  first started teaching we were out of the classroom for staff development quite often. It was always difficult to pick up the pieces upon my return and leave meaningful instructional activities while I am out. Several times throughout my career, I have been asked to step in and take over a class while a teacher is ill or on maternity leave. A teacher cannot risk not having students adequately prepared for performance on high stakes tests and trust part of the preparatory work  be done by a substitute teacher. We all know good subs are out there although they are hard to find and keep for an extended period of time. The idea of using webcam to minimize a loss of instruction is a novel idea, although not brand new.

Teachers/trainers have been using webcam/videoconferencing equipment to provide distance education for a number of years. The number of virtual high schools is growing by leaps and bounds and the use of this technology greatly benefits small, rural districts that have limited funding and a lack of teachers specializing in the math/science content areas. I have become a huge fan and proponent of using this medium to enrich instruction and started a wiki to serve as a repository of resources, training and discussions at http://caisefiles.wikispaces.com. I would love the opportunity to teach or facilitate a class online – certification issues and not having a master’s degree have hindered me personally in this area but the opportunities are out there.

While Wilson finishes recuperating at home, his students are benefiting from the interactive technology he is  using to deliver his government lessons online. The success of this venture comes from the support of the administration, network infrastructure to facilitate this endeavor and the dedication of the teacher and students. A deficiency in any one of those areas will severely impact the project but when each piece comes together to provide interactive and quality instruction to students there is no finer instrument to provide distance education.

Officials use Facebook/MySpace to Prosecute Criminal Cases

One of the Twitter posts I read last week referred me to an article on CNN.com about law officials using the social network sites of Facebook and MySpace to obtain evidence from pictures and comments posted to the sites. The article mentioned a college student who was seen at a Halloween party two weeks after being arrested after being involved in a drunk driving accident. According to the article,

Two weeks after Joshua Lipton was charged in a drunken driving crash that seriously injured a woman, the 20-year-old college junior attended a Halloween party dressed as a prisoner. Pictures from the party showed him in a black-and-white striped shirt and an orange jumpsuit labeled “Jail Bird.”

Lipton was not showing much remorse partying after being involved in an alcohol related accident. While the woman Lipton hit was recovering in the hospital, Lipton was out partying and one of his friends posted pictures from the party that included Lipton on Facebook.

Source: Flickr*

I recently blogged about being aware of the digital footprints we leave on the internet citing a USTA professor as an example. His explicit emails with references to his students were made public and printed in the newspaper with this incident making front page news.

According to the article at CNN.com, discussion of how law officials use the pictures of social networks to portray the nature of one’s character is becoming commonplace.

“Social networking sites are just another way that people say things or do things that come back and haunt them,” said Phil Malone, director of the cyberlaw clinic at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. “The things that people say online or leave online are pretty permanent.”

The pictures, when shown at sentencing, not only embarrass defendants but can make it harder for them to convince a judge that they’re remorseful or that their drunken behavior was an aberration. (Of course, the sites are also valuable for defense lawyers looking to dig up dirt to undercut the credibility of a star prosecution witness.

Prosecutors do not appear to be scouring networking sites while preparing for every sentencing, even though telling photos of criminal defendants are sometimes available in plain sight and accessible under a person’s real name. But in cases where they’ve had reason to suspect incriminating pictures online, or have been tipped off to a particular person’s MySpace or Facebook page, the sites have yielded critical character evidence.

While teaching students how to perform boolean searches on the internet or cite sources, it is just as important to stress the awareness of the digital footprints each of us leaves behind. Hopefully the students will not have their digital footprints used as evidence against them in a criminal matter as the teens did in the article but examples such as these show the importance of being cognizant of one’s presence on the internet. Colleges and employers often do searches on the social networks and make decisions based on their findings. I believe emphasizing the concept of digital footprints is as important in preparing students for the 21st century as is internet safety to avoid predators, using technology tools and social networks. For some students, their digital footprint could make the difference between a sentence of life or death.

*Patiblue. “Pegasus/Footprint.” Patiblue’s Photostream. April 9. 2008. Sept. 20, 2005. http://www.flickr.com/photos/patiblue/151771347/

Teacher Prep Program Completed in Two Days

I just finished reading an astonishing blog post commenting on school districts that are resorting to shortened teacher prep programs, if you can call it that, to ease teacher shortages.

Recently I was surprised to hear two different school districts in major cities advertising for “anyone with a bachelor’s degree” to apply to teach. The advertisements stated that the districts were desperate for teachers and could certify anyone with a bachelor’s degree. One district even said certification could be accomplished in only two Saturdays of preparation.

In Texas, a candidate with a bachelor’s degree can participate in an alternative certification program. After teaching for one school year and attending classes on evenings and weekends during that year, provided he/she passes the state certification exam, a candidate can become a certified teacher. In my city with many school districts, primarily only the smaller school districts hire candidates in alternative certification programs. In my experience, those districts are have a difficult time attracting highly qualified teachers due to poor working conditions or low performing campuses. Although that isn’t always the case, it happens more often than not.

After having been asked to step in and ‘assist’ teachers in these alternative certification programs, my experience has found the caliber of teachers generated by these programs to be of a lesser quality. Especially those that retired from a military career. Teaching is on the opposite spectrum of careers and the candidates I taught with had a hard time dealing with disrespect from students, managing a classroom and being flexible with schedule changes. If I were a parent I would not have wanted my child to be a student in their classrooms as their students definitely suffered academically. One year is not enough for some of these candidates for preparation much less ‘two Saturdays’. For some, no time period will assist them in becoming a highly qualified teacher according to NCLB standards.

Not all teachers that go through alternative certification programs are indequate or ill equipped. I taught with a two teachers in particular that were so successful I had no idea they were a product of alternative certification programs until we had a conversation one day during a grade level planning session. They are natural teachers with great classroom management and those two traits cannot be ‘taught’ in any educator prep program. Either you are cut out to be a quality teacher or not and generally the skills that makes awesome teachers awesome cannot be taught or even defined. Great teachers have ‘it’. Students, parents and colleagues know if a teacher has the ‘it’ factor and everyone knows if a doesn’t doesn’t have ‘it’.

Ever read about or seen the movie, “The Ron Clark Story“? He took over a deplorably behaved class and transformed their achievement, behavior and attitudes. He definitely had ‘it’. Without being overly confident I know have ‘it’. Do you?

“Teachers are Missing the Mark in Math”

I came across this article last week entitled, “Teachers are Missing the Mark in Math“. The article reviewed a national study about the capability of teachers to teach mathematics, primarily at the elementary grades. The study recommends that colleges and universities develop more difficult tests to certify teachers upon graduation of teacher prep programs. The study attributes the poor preparation as the reason that US students perform much lower on standardized mathematics tests.

Because teachers are not prepared to teach elementary students math, Walsh said American elementary school students continue to lag internationally in math and science rankings.

The study looked at professors’ syllabi and textbooks to make the determination. While I am a novice researcher, I am not sure that one can gain great insight into the instructional strategies and practices professors used to design and deliver instruction. The study found the following:

. . . that 87 percent of schools studied, including all three Texas schools (the University of Texas at Dallas, University of Texas at El Paso and West Texas A&M University ), failed to adequately prepare elementary teachers for the math demands of the classroom.”

After teaching elementary and middle mathematics, I concur with the findings that many elementary teachers struggle teaching math at a level that helps students develop a solid foundation of mathematics concepts, algorithms, properties, etc. As a result, students progress to the next grade level ill prepared. Today, as I am sure you are aware or you wouldn’t be reading this post, there are tons resources available to assist teachers in designing effective math lessons.

I find it very interesting a comment made by Scherry Johnson who is the UT-Dallas Teacher Development Center Director. She oversees the teacher prep program at UT-Dallas.

. . . nobody at UT-Dallas knew that the National Council on Teacher Quality was evaluating the school, and suspects the study is full of mistakes because it looked only at syllabi and a textbook.

Unfortunately, many college professors have not taught elementary grade levels and have only experienced the result of poor mathematics at the elementary levels when the students reach them in secondary grade levels. In my opinion, elementary teachers carry the burden of providing students a foundation in all content areas without being able to focus solely on mathematics as in secondary grade levels.

When I taught middle school math, the level of instruction I delivered was much higher than when I taught elementary grade levels as I only had to focus on my math preps. I hate to admit it but my students didn’t receive quality instruction in content areas that were not tested with a standardized test. Although I was responsible for teaching social studies, social studies lessons and activities took a backseat to language arts and mathematics.

Over time, I became skilled at integrating content areas into the areas of instruction that were assessed by standardized tests exposing my students to effective lessons in all content areas. It was difficult and time consuming but I felt my students were well rounded as a result. Integrating technology components definitely upped the efficacy of activities, lessons and units that I designed.

I say this to make a point. Read the following quote from the Scherry Johnson from the article:

“I was totally surprised,” said UT-Dallas Teacher Development Center Director Scherry Johnson. “Right now, I’ve been sitting in on that methods class, and I am just blown away. They use manipulatives so the students are learning hands-on math, which is the best way for elementary students to learn math concepts.”  (Italics and bold styles used for emphasis)

“Blown away” by using manipulatives? Surprised by the instructional strategies the professors employed in the teacher tech program which she oversees? Teachers in the elementary prep program only have to take one class on teaching mathematics and Johnson was commenting on “…that methods class…“. No wonder teachers are ill prepared when supervising advisors and professors have not kept up with trends, instructional strategies and technology tools to enrich instruction. Teacher prep programs are only as good as the professors. If the professors, or faculty members are experienced with many years in education but have not kept up to date on the latest educational trends and strategies to improve instruction teachers just entering the profession will struggle and quickly become frustrated and leave the profession.

Statistics show the turnover for teachers in the first five years is very high and I am sure the number is growing each year. I am not a professor and don’t proclaim to know all there is to being an effective teacher but I definitely make an effort to reflect, grow and learn to employ strategies that are research based to improve instruction. Incorporating technology components is a big focus in my lessons and activities although I have worked with ‘dinosaurs’ that believe in paper/pencil instruction and working out of the textbook with out supplementing with quality, motivating activies. It is a vicious cycle of generating ill equipped teachers producing ill equipped students who become ill equipped teachers over and over. The question now is how do we stop this cycle and generate effective teachers producing students who received quality instruction at each grade level? What are your thoughts?

“This is a test – just a test – of the Emergency Broadcast System”

All of us have heard or seen the tests conducted by the emergency broadcast system and had there been an actual emergency when we would have been notified of how we were to proceed. I liken this to the approach of testing in Texas. I was reading the post entitled, “Severe Weather Testing Protocols” from the ‘Fractions Speak Louder than Nerds‘ blog. The district I was recently affiliated with was notorious for going overboard on the preparation of the building for the testing environment going to the extent of covering book cases, all posters – even motivational – as they had words on the posters or book spines and those words may help students with something on the test.

Personally, I don’t see that a poster saying, “Be true to yourself” or the 55 Rules of Ron Clark to be testing aids of any kind but hey, you do what you gotta do. Anything that can be prepared for is covered in the 150 page manual that contains the oath that you sign agreeing not to read the contents or commit any act that you shouldn’t or you will be notified of how to proceed as in the tests conducted by the emergency broadcast system.

The extent the educators go to that are mentioned in this fellow blogger’s post about protecting test booklets and materials is humorous. We laugh because we can relate to having to protect, monitor, count, check out, check in, lock up, pass out, collect, alphabetize and many other things that I didn’t name regarding the handling of the testing materials except looking at the test booklets.

If a student throws up or does the unforgivable thing of bending their answer document or even worse- spilling something on their booklet or answer document – all is lost and you are signing away your life on all kinds of forms to prove something bizarre happened and you weren’t just taking a peek at the content of the test. I know TEA loves to receive answer documents or booklets inside of a sealed ziplock bag with vomit or other unknown bodily fluids acting as an adhesive on the pages in the test booklet. I just hope the ziplock bag with the contaminated test materials was sealed before lunch…especially since it may be several weeks before TEA gets the special delivery of dried vomit on a test answer document. How fun is testing in Texas!?!